The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has fully armed at least three of its several man-made islands in the contested South China Sea area. The islands were reported to be equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-naval missile systems, lasers, and jamming apparatus in pursuing an increasingly aggressive military aircraft activity in the vicinity.

United States Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John C. Aquilino said China’s aggression is opposed to previous guarantees from Chinese President Xi Jinping that the PRC would not convert the already controversial artificial islands into military facilities. According to the Admiral, the incident is part of China’s attempt to flex its military might.

Adm. John Aquilino (right) with French RADM Jean-Mathieu Rey (left(, 2021 (US Indo-Pacific Command). Source: https://www.facebook.com/61575637587/photos/a.96721182587/10160932509807588/
Adm. John Aquilino (right) with French RADM Jean-Mathieu Rey (left), 2021 (US Indo-Pacific Command/Facebook)

“I think over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC,” said Aquilino in an interview with The Associated Press. “They have advanced all their capabilities, and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”

Beijing and its officials have not released any comments regarding their recent actions. The country insists that its military portfolio is purely defensive, tailored to protect its sovereign rights. But with the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea and Taiwan, which they claim to be part of their territory, the extent of these “sovereign rights” becomes questionable.

For several years, China has consistently increased its military spending. Its military budget is now only second to that of the United States. It has been rapidly developing its military capabilities through new weapon systems, such as hypersonic missiles, several aircraft carriers, and the J-20 stealth fighter.

Heated Encounters With China

The Associated Press’s journalist who interviewed Aquilino got a taste of the heated encounters between China and the United States forces in the South China Sea.

Aboard a P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft from the US Navy, the crew received multiple radio warnings from Chinese officials saying they had entered China’s territory and ordered them to turn the craft around.

A P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 4, flies over the Atlantic Ocean during a photo exercise, March 29, 2020 (US Navy/DVIDS). Source: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6157216/vp-4-p-8a-poseidon-transits-atlantic-ocean
A P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 4 flies over the Atlantic Ocean during a photo exercise, March 29, 2020 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juan Sua/Released/DVIDS)

“China has sovereignty over the Spratly islands, as well as surrounding maritime areas. Stay away immediately to avoid misjudgment,” said one of the radio transmissions in a subtle threat.

The US Navy aircraft pressed on despite several more of these warnings in a tense moment, according to the journalists on board.

“I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,” responded the US pilot. “Exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law, and I am operating with due regard to the rights and duties of all states,” he added.

These incidents are not uncommon when within the South China Sea. According to Navy Commanding Officer Joel Martinez, the leader of the P-8A crew, there was one time when a Chinese jet flew close to a US aircraft in what could only be described as a dangerous maneuver. The US crew calmly responded by reminding their Chinese counterparts of aviation safety guidelines.

Possible Resolutions For South China Sea Dispute

Various infrastructure built by the Chinese can be seen on the contested reefs. Storage houses, runways, ports, hangars, multi-story buildings, and radars can be observed upon aerial inspection.

According to Aquilino, the construction of said infrastructures has been completed on the contested Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef. The admiral explained that the Chinese rationale behind building said facilities were to expand its offensive capabilities beyond their shores.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” he explained. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

An satellite photograph of Mischief Reef taken by Maxar in 2020 (Asia Martime Transparency Initiative). Source: https://amti.csis.org/mischief-reef/#DetailImages-heading
A satellite photograph of Mischief Reef taken by Maxar in 2020 (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

China has been building up these bases across the South China Sea to bolster its claim on the entire area. Other countries also lay claim to some or all of the parts of the territory, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

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A landmark case held by the international tribunal at the Hague was won in 2016 by the Philippines against China’s claim on the area. The ruling saw the rejection of Beijing’s historical argument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal also proclaimed that China had violated international law by causing irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem, harassing Philippine ships, and disrupting Philippine oil and fishing explorations.

The David versus Goliath victory from the Philippines provides hope of a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute. The United States, along with other powers, have consistently sent their warships through the contested area to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations, which is an exercise of free passage in international waterways and an act of protest to China’s illegitimate claim.

Aquilino said that the primary objective of the White House is to prevent the tension in the South China Sea from escalating into an all-out war. However, the admiral, who reportedly leads the largest US combatant command with over 380,000 US servicemen and women, seems to have a backup plan should resolutions go south.

“Should deterrence fail, my second mission is to be prepared to fight and win.”